Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s 19th Convention:
SLFP in the contemporary politics of Sri Lanka
The 19th National Convention of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party,
scheduled for tomorrow, coincides with the 57th anniversary of the party
which founded in 1951, emerged as the most effective and formidable
alternative to then United National Party which dominated the political
life of the country in the first decade of the post-independent Sri
The formation of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party in 1951, was a
historical need as the people, who suffered under colonialism and under
the leadership of the Senanayake regime, wanted an alternative political
party to represent their interests and grievances.
The people, specially those of rural Sri Lanka, who remained
marginalized during the period of colonial domination, needed a
political party which can successfully aggregate the varied interests of
the people in rural areas who, in course of time, became the arbiters of
the national political conflict in the country.
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, from the time entered the political arena in
the country and through the State Council, engineered the construction
of a number institutions through which he intended to mobilize the
oppressed and the emerging rural intelligentsia, and it was on the basis
of the political potentiality of those forces and institutions which had
and exclusive traditional character that he identified the historical
foundations of the party, which, in 1956, came to be associated with the
Pancha Maha Balavegaya which, in the end, constructed both the
historical and the ideological foundations of the party which, to a
great extent, looked at the major issues of the day from the point of
view of nationalism. The Pancha Maha Balavegaya represented the major
traditional institutions in Sri Lanka, and they were vital instruments
of political change: the mobilization of those with nationalist demands
created a strong popular base for the party which, due to the continued
influence of those forces, was expected to remain loyal to its
traditional support base and its historical foundations.
It, in course of time, became a major political resource of the party
and its utilization, in the context of a growing awareness of the
international factor, guided the major policies of the party: its
content, in a way, influenced the formulation of public policy in a wide
area of Governmental activity.
From that point of view, the 1956 historic political change, based on
the nationalist political resources of the period, represented a major
political resource, though part of which remain politically invalid
today, from which the party, its main pressure groups and its widespread
political base derived immense political inspiration to convert the
party into a virtual political and social movement, the important
features of which nourished the party in the last 50 years. It still
remains a party based on this orientation.
Creating hitory : UNP MPs crossing over to form the SLFP. ANCL file photo
The issue before the party, therefore, was how to come to terms with
the ever-growing influence of those traditional forces which derived
inspiration from both the history and culture.
At a later stage, the question was what place, if any, was to be
given the traditional institutions, as these institutions and systems
normally have a powerful appeal to the masses at large, and the SLFP
understood its potentiality as a source of power whereas the Marxist
parties and others saw this whole process as a form of political
Much of the politics of this period centred on this issue, and the
continued reliance on the forces and issues in the rural areas of the
country, helped the party to retain its formidable popular base, and all
leaders, irrespective of their standpoint on major issues of policy,
were expected to derive inspiration from this popular source of mass
As in 1956 and in the post-1956 period, the formulation of public
policy came to be stimulated by such political compulsions, many of
which were rooted in the traditional rural instruments of power.
This, in political terms, meant that the SLFP, from its very
inception, was a political party founded on the legitimate aspirations
of the masses in the village, and both S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Sirima
Bandaranaike realizing its tremendous impact on the whole process of
political change in the country, never deviated from this strategy
which, till the mid-seventies, determined the nature and content of
Some of the policy changes came to be determined by an ideology which
contained certain important strands of social democracy, and the
influence of the socialist ideology was not totally absent as the period
was a period of socialist experiment in most of the countries of the
All these countries, immediately after de-colonization, began to
emulate certain features of the socialist experiment and the
State-centred development strategy came on the scene as the panacea for
all ills in the Post-Colonial State.
Both economic and foreign policy came to be built on those
foundations were partly ideological in character, and this was
inevitable as the trend in the post-colonial state in both Asia and
Africa advocated this direction in policy. It, though angered the West,
was inevitable a necessity for an emergent state to realize its
objectives and aspirations as an independent state, and SLFP, as the
political party which enjoyed power in the Sri Lankan State on a number
of occasions, emulated this political strategy with a view to
accelerating the process of economic and social change on the basis of
the legitimate aspirations of the common man, whose interests and
grievances, dominated the totality of the policies of the party.
It was on the basis of such aspirations of the common man that the
SLFP’s historical foundations came to be built and any attempt to
deviate from such foundations immediately interfered with its popular
As long as the party and its non-cosmopolitan leadership remained
loyal to this base, the party remained strong and continued to command
respect among the ordinary masses of the country.
Some regimes, which were formed under its leadership, were perceived
as “regimes of the common man”, whose improvement and enhancement of his
opportunities remained the basic policy-strategy of the SLFP, and all
rural reconstruction programs, enunciated in the Mahinda Chintana and
put into practice through the main village reconstruction programs -
Gama Neguma, Maga Neguma, Jatika Saviya and Api Wawamu are part of a
conscious policy strategy to address the burning issues of the rural
people, from whom the SLFP historically derives inspiration.
The party, from the very beginning, articulated the dynamism of the
rural elite and it, as the UNP, never depended on the prowess of the
English-educated elite in Colombo, and it was the over-reliance on the
rural intelligentsia which gave the party a solid base in the rural
areas of the country.
It was this formidable base which made the SLFP, despite the several
internal problems which it experienced since the famous Kurunegala
Conference in 1959, became the most powerful political party with an
illustrious record in Government. All its Governments - the 1956 regime,
1960 regime, 1970 regime and the 1994 regime and the present regime
under the able leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, were regimes
which made distinctive contributions to social and economic development
in the country.
It was the SLFP which gave the unitary character of the State a
Constitutional status, and the party, though deviated a bit in 2000,
remained totally committed to the preservation of the unitary character
of the Sri Lankan State, and it is through absolute commitment to the
concept of the unitary State that sovereignty, unity and territorial
integrity of the Sri Lankan State could be preserved.
It was under the leadership of the SLFP that Coalitions were formed
in this country, and a new coalition political culture came to be
inaugurated in this country.
It, in addition to the nature of political stability which it
nurtured in the system, gave certain smaller political parties the
opportunity to share political power.
It created opportunities for national integration: this kind of
coalition political culture has had a major impact on the national
politics of the country, for which the SLFP, with the correct political
perceptions, provided the leadership.
Sri Lanka gave expression to a kind of dynamic neutralism based on
her national interest: it took regional interests too into consideration
in formulating her foreign policy and the political and intellectual
inputs for the formation of her foreign policy came from the SLFP, whose
leaders, both the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and the late Sirimavo
Bandaranaike made the most outstanding contribution.
In formulating her foreign policy, the SLFP always thought in terms
of the country’s national interest and President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in
the last four years, managed power as one of the ablest political
managers of this period in such way so as to see that foreign policy
becomes an important element in the management of political power in the
context of a massive humanitarian offensive to defeat the most
sophisticated and brutal terrorist organization in the world.
The foreign policy calculations became fundamental and vital in such
operations and the past record of the SLFP’s foreign policy, in the most
crucial period, came to the rescue.
The foreign policy legacy of the fifties, sixties and the seventies
began to exert an influence and Sri Lanka was seen as a small nation
which deserves international support to help it to crush terrorism of an
The SLFP is the only political party in the country which conducted a
realistic and pragmatist foreign policy based on the national interest,
and Mahinda Rajapaksa, in the last four years, gave leadership to a
foreign policy based primarily on pragmatic considerations and it was on
the basis of this policy that he sought the assistance of new friends.
A nation, when faced with a major internal crisis, the main plank of
which is to assault both national sovereignty and territorial integrity
cannot bank on the friendship of the traditional friends.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, displaying his ability in handling major
foreign policy issues, managed the India factor and the Tamilnadu factor
in an admirable way.
In the context of a fundamental challenge to the security of the Sri
Lankan State, vital foreign policy adjustments are necessary to meet the
challenge and it was in this scenario that the SLFP took certain bold
initiatives in the area of foreign policy.
This, again, was due to his bold policy initiatives, based on the
historical foundations of the party.
He never gave in to unwanted international pressure. He, with an
unique and extraordinary charisma and popular acceptance, has
successfully obliterated all the names of the leaders of the independent
Sri Lanka, and this is his unique and historic achievement which is
certain to remain alive in the minds of the people who saw the defeat of
the LTTE as a major historic achievement.
It is commonly accepted that once a leader is positioned at the very
apex of the political ladder, when can he find political resources to
muster support on behalf of his position and his purposes? With regard
to this matter of political significance, President Mahinda Rajapaksa,
unlike all leaders who preceded him in office, converted all the
available traditional symbols of power and instruments of legitimation,
based in the ancient history and ancient political lore, into very
effective sources of aggregation of interests and mobilization of mass
It was a kind of political strategy based on a tradition - not an
invented tradition - which can be described as the careful
re-construction and renewal of an ancient tradition through which a
political resource has been unearthed to sustain himself in power.
He, on the basis of this resource, has now emerged as the most
outstanding leader whose position is unassailable and unchallengeable
primarily because of the popular acceptance which he commands in the
country. It is an incomparable political achievement.
This special feature in relation to the political leadership in Sri
Lanka has had a tremendous impact on the political process, especially
within the parties in the political opposition in the country.
The opposition, both inside and outside the legislature, is in total
disarray and is in steep decline; its support base has been damaged
As Harold Laski said, the Opposition, particularly the Parliamentary
Opposition does not know how to ‘bicker safely’. It does not bicker at
all and it engages only in cheap political rhetoric.
Therefore President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the SLFP, with its tactics
and current strategies, have successfully engineered this crisis within
the main party in the opposition whose support base has begun to erode
on a mass scale.
All political parties in the Opposition are faced with a legitimacy
crisis where their membership has begun to desert the parties and they,
with full enthusiasm, have begun to join the SLFP en masse because of
the visible failure of their parties to provide leadership to an
This is a major crisis within the ranks of the opposition which
specialises only on political rhetoric instead of effective and
efficient political strategies.
The growing rebellion within the UNP has weakened its leadership as
well as its popular base which has now begun to erode because of its
failure to understand its own role and its interests.
Its leader cannot hide his own lack of authority within the UNP, and
its political impotence is the biggest advantage to the coalition in
The United National Party has a leader who cannot re-assure his
supporters due to the lack of imagination and strategies. It, apart from
its lack of cohesion, cannot generate new ideas, and the party,
therefore is in steep decline.
The latest Provincial Council elections in Uva and South amply
demonstrate this fact, and the decline of the UNP a permanent feature in
the politics of the country, cannot be arrested even with a change in
its present leader.
The coalitions, to which the SLFP provided leadership since 1956, are
an unique experience in the politics of Sri Lanka; the SLFP has
tactfully given places to all shades of minority representation.
The present coalition led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa is perhaps
the only Government in post-independent Sri Lanka that accommodated such
a variety of minority interests.
All minority political parties remain fragmented and they have failed
to show their ability to work on the basis of a joint political agenda
and this again is due to their own regional and communal agenda.
The Government, at this point of time in Sri Lanka, has to perform a
number of complex functions that require continued governmental
All functions of government, therefore demand political capability,
and the SLFP and its leader, President Mahinda Rajapaksa have
endeavoured to develop a capacity to defend the territorial integrity of
the State, while taking calculated measures to sustain both internal
order and economic and social development.
The whole process of change, that is now taking place under the
leadership of the SLFP, is derived from such imperatives of governance,
for which all interests have to be carefully aggregated.
This has been the main achievement of this coalition government led
by the SLFP, and this particular strategy needs elaboration to
understand the new processes of change in Sri Lanka.
No party can remain in power without aggregating sufficient power
through the activation of individuals and groups who have power, and the
SLFP, with its experience in coalition politics, has successfully
mobilized the power of such groups in order to pursue its own political
objectives and purposes.
A leader needs certain political skills to manage power in a complex
situation, and it is the political resource which one commands that
gives the leader the opportunity to project an effective personalized
charismatic leadership as represented in the style of leadership of
President Mahinda Rajapaksa who, through a unique kind of charisma, has
put the entire opposition on the defensive.
The role and leadership of the SLFP, therefore, combines history,
tradition, ideology and personality, and the party, based on such
historical foundations, has now emerged as the most powerful political
formation, which, given its solid popular base in the Sri Lankan polity,
is certain to remain the party of the Government for a considerable
length of time.
Through President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s personality, his style of
leadership and the wide popular acceptance which he still commands
within the polity, the party has obtained the kind of legitimacy which
it needs to remain in power.
It has not been acquired; it has been thrust upon the party on the
basis of a number of historical and contemporary political factors.
Sri Lanka Freedom Party, as in its history in the past 57 years, has
produced a leader to undertake yet another historical mission on behalf
of the party.
With the annihilation of the LTTE, which claimed invincibility for
more than three decades, a page in history has been turned by President
Mahinda Rajapaksa. The mere fact that this is so is enough to change the
vision of every politician and citizen in Sri Lanka.